Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 9

Habit Management

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Today I'm going to back off from talking about systems to solve individual problems, and start talking about how to balance doing more than one self improvement system at the same time. How to add new good habits, without risking the good habits you already have. Fellow computer types might want to think of this as "Everyday Systems administration." But I think the term "habit management" is more useful, even for us computer types. Because the key to making it work is to think in terms of habit, instead of some of the other ways we tend to look at this stuff. Habit management is actually kind of a big issue, and I'm going to have to break it up into more than one podcast. Today I'm just going to try to sell you on the power of thinking in terms of habit.

Think about the difference between home improvement and self improvement. When you do a home improvement project, it's a one time thing. It's finite. You put in granite counter tops or something similarly atrocious, and it's done. You can move onto the next project. And you tend to do just one project at a time (if you're smart). You fix the root, then you redo the bathroom, then you redo the kitchen. You don't do them all at once.

Self improvement isn't like this. When you hit your goal in terms of diet or fitness or whatever, you can't just back off. You have to maintain this behavior. It's almost like having to re-install a new granite counter top every day. And most of us have more than one self improvement issue that we need to work in parallel. So it's like we have to reinstall the counter tops, refix the roof, and retile the bathroom every day.

If you express your self improvement goals in terms of results oriented goals, and rely solely on conscious effort to achieve them, that really is more or less what you're doing. And it's pretty hopeless. But if you look at self improvement in terms of habit, it gets much easier. A habit is a behavior or set of behaviors that is at least partically automatic and unconscious. You do have to spend some to maintain a habit, but because of the big unconscious element, the maintenance is minimal.

Habit is so powerful that in modern times people have tended to think of it as irresistible. They called it addiction and tended to think of it as something always bad, something working against you. Right? addiction. But, though powerful, habits aren't always irresistible, and they aren't always bad. They're also all over the place. Your psyche is teeming with these dangerous but potentially useful forces.

Habits are kind of like wild animals. Very powerful, but kind of dumb. You can't face them head on, they'll tear you to shreds. But with some carrot and stick, you can tame them, and get them to work for you.

Conscious attention is a very limited commodity. You can do sophisticated stuff with it, but because it's so limited, you want to reserve it for the when it's really necessary. Save your conscious attention for hitching up habit to pull along desired behaviors, like a horse pulling a cart. You need conscious attention for the hitching up, but don't have your conscious attention pull that cart. That's what dumb strong unconscious habit is for. Having your conscious attention pull that cart is a tremendously wasteful misallocation of resources.

So the question is, how do you take a conscious self improvement goal, like lose 50 pounds by next July, and turn it into an unconscious habit?

First off, you have to express the goal a little better than this. "Lose 50 pounds by July" isn't an unusual way to express a self improvement goal. In fact it's pretty typical. But people typically fail at these things. And I think the way they frame their goals has a lot to do with it.

Think in terms of actions and behaviors rather than results. Frame your problem in terms of what you have to do in order to solve it instead of what you hope will happen to you as a result of your actions. This is important for a number of reasons. We tend to be really, really bad at making results goals. They're usually pretty arbitrary, based on our vacation plans or something, not on a realistic assessment of what we can actually accomplish. And then, just consider the obvious: you can't turn a result like "lose 50 pounds" into habit. Right? It's an end state. What do you do? It tells you where you want to be, but not how to get there. A habit is a special kind of behavior, right, an unconscious behavior, and a behavior is way of describing a repeated action, and an action is something you do. A results goal like this isn't even an action. Of course you can't make it into a habit.

So instead of thinking about desired results, think about the actions that you hope will get you those results -- or something like, it, because we're so bad at actually figuring out what the results should be. For example, "no snacking on weekdays" or "exercise 14 minutes every weekday morning." These are behaviors. Long term, results come from behaviors. In fact it's the only thing (short of surgery, I guess) that results will come from. Focusing on behaviors means you are forsaking results. It means you are focusing on the part of reality that you can actually change. Results goals are essentially just wishful thinking.

And the great thing is, behaviors continue to be useful after you've hit your desired results. You don't have to radically and riskily change anything once you get there. In fact, I would toss the results goal out entirely. A results goal is a distraction. It doesn't tell you how to get anywhere. It depresses you if you don't. And it doesn't tell you what to do next when and if you do.

Another great thing about thinking in terms of behaviors rather than results is that you can't fail -- unless you decide to. You have direct control over your actions. You don't have direct control over the number on the scale or the amount of weight you can bench press. You have indirect impact on that. If you behave well, eventually, if it's a realistic goal, you'll get there. But you can't just decide what it is. How many times have you stepped on the scale and though "that's not fair! I hardly ate anything yesterday!" You feel powerless and defeated because even though you did everything right, the way you expressed your goal -- pounds on a scale -- turned you into a failure.

You don't have direct control over the scale. And you don't have direct control over the nautilus machine. But you do have direct control over your actions. Your actions are your control. If you don't do what you set out to, there's no surprise, it's a decision. Your decision. That can sound a little harsh. Because it's your there is no one else to blame, there are no excuses, it's your responsibility. But what you get for this is worth it. It's not even a trade off. It's just a positive way of saying the same thing. The power to fail *is* the power to succeed. They inherently go together. The alternative is powerlessness. A rock can't fail. A rock can't do anything.

OK, so I hope I've sold you on expressing your goals as behaviors rather than results.

The next step is to choose the right behaviors. Some behaviors are much more habit friendly, much more easily automated into unconscious habit than others. But I'm going to have to wait till next week to get into that. Bye for now. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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